Time For A Nice Cold One

What do Steven King, Danielle Steele, John Grisham, and J.K. Rowling have in common?

Okay, that's an easy one. They're all best-selling authors who have racked up book sales in the hundreds of millions. But they also share something else in common - they all have editors.

These four authors have reached the pinnacle of success in their profession. Yet each understands the value of having someone with fresh eyes look over their work and provide feedback, direction, and suggestions for improvement. In fact, any writer worth their salt will understand the need for and the value of having at least one other set of eyeballs go over their writing before sending it to the intended audience.

I say what's good for writers is good for our businesses as well.

In business, we tend to do the same things over and over again, to the point that we can no longer see what's really in front of us because we're so used to doing things a certain way. Conducting a "cold eye" review - whereby someone not involved with a particular system or process looks at it with fresh eyes - can be invaluable in helping to resolve problems and identify areas for improvement.

When done well, the cold eye review often uncovers the obvious (things that were missed previously because people are so used to them), and occasionally discovers the unique. At the least, it helps people to see what they do in a different way, and opens their minds to the possibility that there might be a better way.

Here's how it works:

Identify a cold eye subject

Think about the products, systems, or processes in your organization that have remained the same for an extended period of time. What have you been doing the same way for so long that nobody even thinks about why you do it that way any more? And don't be afraid to cast a cold eye on your organizational sacred cows -- those products, projects, ideas, and ways of thinking that are usually considered off limits for discussion.

Set the stage

Cold eye reviews are often perceived as a threat, especially by employees who remain entrenched in old ways of thinking and acting. To break the ice, conduct several brief meetings and/or conversations to introduce the process, outline the benefits, and sketch out a plan to address any areas considered for improvement.

Create a timeline

Set specific dates for conducting the review and sharing the feedback with everyone involved. Without firm dates, the cold eye process may never get past the good intentions stage.

Select the reviewer(s)

Ask a person/people from outside the business unit, team, function, or even the company to serve as the cold-eye reviewer. The less they know about the area being reviewed, the better. Ideally, cold eye reviewers will exhibit these qualities:

Respected within the organization/industry
Good communicator (asks insightful questions!)
Good problem solver
Diplomatic (able to give advice appropriately)
Has broad experiences and worked in multiple environments
Most important, cold eye reviewers should approach the project as an opportunity to support, assist, and improve, not prove themselves right while making others wrong.

Conduct the review

Have the "owner" of the system or process provide an overview/orientation of the current state. Then have the reviewer ask questions like:

How long have you been doing it this way? Why?
What one thing have you always wanted to change?
What's the biggest barrier to the process being more efficient, faster or higher quality?
What one thing do you think senior management does not want changed?
If you were in charge of this on your own, what's the first thing you would do differently?
What takes the most time/resources in this process?
What if you eliminated this role/step/ingredient?
If you had to cut the time it takes to get it done by half, where would you cut?
What do you think our competitors do differently?
If you could create this process or product from scratch, what would it look like?
If money was no object, what tools or equipment would you replace and what advantage would that give you?
Feedback and action

Have the reviewer report back to management on what he or she learned. Based on that feedback, brainstorm ideas for improvement, create action plans to implement the best idea(s), and set a timeline for implementation.

To enhance the cold eye review, make the process somewhat informal to provide as much comfort as possible to participants. At the same time, create an environment where no question is out of bounds by clearly stating that you expect people to be pushed, prodded, and provoked. In meetings, visibly support rigorous questioning by thanking those who do.

Also, keep in mind that the owner of the area or process will need to be actively involved. A cold eye review is something done with them, not to them. Their role is to remain open to questions and feedback, and note opportunities for improvement.

If you get asked to do a cold eye review, be aware of the effect you will have on those who work in the area being reviewed. People may perceive your presence as intimidating or even threatening, so don't come across as a superior "know it all." And don't think or lead others to believe that your job is to fix things.

Instead, remain open to what people have to say, listening actively, and initially ask questions only to clarify. Use phrases like, "Help me understand... " and "Can you explain to me why... ?" Propose possibilities by using language such as, "Is it possible that... ?" or "I'm wondering if... " or "Have you considered... ?" Upon completion of the review, write up your suggestions and outstanding questions, and send them as quickly as possible to your host.

Finally, keep in mind that a cold eye review does not work when forced on an organization. If a team, area or business unit is not open to the process, find out why, and explore ways to change their resistance into active involvement.